Think, Imagine: Redistributing the "Independent" in Film

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

Mark Urman has dedicated his life to independent film. Framed behind a pair of chunky glasses and a slim cut suit, Urman gave the closing address last weekend at the Space, Place, and Imagination conference sponsored by the University of Rhode Island.

From across the podium he effortlessly seized our attention, delivering perfectly crafted stories about his career in the film industry, demonstrating the passion with which he has worked so hard to bring incredible film to the public. Describing his journey towards his current position as the head of distribution for THINKFilm, he shared inside stories that humorously contrasted the history of "films with a vision" and wider-release films that, in their attempts to appeal to everyone, are "becoming bigger and dumber."

Independent films are undoubtedly enjoying record success. Urman was quick to point out the awards that his films have won in recent years, but he was quicker to credit a film culture that wants more than the lowest common denominator. On the local level, film houses like Landmark’s E Street Theatre in Washington, D.C. have become havens for young urbanites in search of the type of sophisticated cinematic vision that Urman tries to foster.

With all of this success, I was surprised when Urman explained the ongoing struggle of finding the right outlet for the right film, and the vague hope that it might end up profitable. With those big and dumb movies replicating that sense of artistic vision, the style of independent film is becoming mainstreamed. This leaves THINKFilm caught between promoting independent films that portray a vision increasingly appropriated by the "big and dumb", and art films that might not have a large enough audience for the established distribution models.

It was at about this point in Urman’s address when Ed, a graduate school peer of mine, looked over and smiled. If nothing else, CCT involves a masterful examinination of production, distribution and consumption models. Dr. Tinkcom’s lectures on the distribution models of the Hollywood engine easily came rushing back, particularly the move of media from the public to the private sphere. Still, it was exhilarating to hear it directly from the source.

The future of independent film, Urman explained, is in the home. Premium TV stations like the Independent Film Channel now offer selections on-demand, and you can imagine a future where every independent film is dynamically delivered to the perfect sized audience: everyone who chooses to pay $5 and plop down on their couch.

This is the power of digital distribution. And for me, the imagination at work at the University of Rhode Island conference seemed reliant on that power.

I was at URI presenting some of my research on craigslist Missed Connections . craigslist (and my research) couldn’t have existed without these near zero-cost forms of distribution, and so I smiled when Urman spoke about the impact of the Internet on artistic film, indulging in the possibility of a direct-from-the-artist non-commercial genre of film.

Undoubtedly the Internet is just the place for such a product. Zero-cost distribution and broad audiences who revel in low-budget production, is what the Internet is all about.

When I talk about craigslist, for example, I always try to point out the importance of its interface as a "perfectly simple" alternative to sites like eBay: "It is free, and it looks like it." Craig Newmark, after all, has always maintained that if he started to charge for his service, some free alternative would simply replace him.

craigslist leverages a particular Internet ethos: that of freedom. This freedom is a value that is established both through the activities that the Internet allows, and the costs it charges for them. As reported in a Wired article last month on the impact of "Free!", "The moment a company’s primary expenses become things based in silicon, free becomes not just an option but an inevitable destination."

The cost of content goes hand-in-hand with the discussion about network neutrality, which some claim (and I agree), will radically influence the future of the Internet. The threat of a non-neutral foundation for the Internet challenges the innovative distribution models that continue to emerge online.

In fact, the potential effects of limited, tiered, or otherwise controlled access to the Internet seem reminiscent of TV and film’s distribution problems. One might call it "homogenization through distribution." When I talked to Urman about the failed internet-to-TV experiment quarterlife, he smiled. "Oh, on NBC?", he said knowingly, evoking that ‘bigger and dumber’ mantra. "You know, the ‘N’ stands for ‘Not any time soon.’"

Yet the demand for free and immediate access to content is one that is increasingly embedded in our culture. Given the non-discriminating nature of IP based networking (the communication system upon which the Internet, and increasingly the entire world, is built), it is not surprising to see legal scholars such as Tim Wu, define network neutrality in a way that embodies the very network design which we have all adopted.

Comcast and Verizon fairly assert that they have a right to tier content for quality of service reasons. Much to the chagrin of software pirates, Comcast has already begun to throttle users engaging in peer-to-peer based transfers. Yet shunting this peer-to-peer activity as a network technology directly impacts innovation.

BitTorrent has been a massive boon to the open source community, shifting network transfer costs off centralized servers, distributing them throughout the "Internet cloud." And the effects aren’t limited to the Internet. Distribution models in the physical world are also attempting to flatten logistics and cut costs by employing peer-to-peer based shipping (Amazon Merchants and Peerflix are two successful examples).

Video data is always cited as the biggest threat to quality of service on the Internet, and it should be. As the adoption of products like "Netflix Watch Instantly" and BMW’s increasingly all-video website, claims that 90% of web traffic will be video don’t seem that outrageous.

The image presented to Congress of a grandmother’s email stuck in some ‘tube’ while the network is swamped by a teenager’s incessant video swapping on MySpace is apparently too threatening for Congress to do more than espouse a vague notion that net neutrality might be a good idea. On the other hand, Mark Urman’s claim that the Internet would preserve innovative film exposes the frivolity of this picture.

There are major economic implications hiding behind constrained access to the Internet. They are the social costs of privatizing a crucial communications network. However, despite the expense that Comcast and Verizon have invested in their networks, focusing on those costs misses the point.

Wired was right when it reminded us that "it’s not about the cost of the equipment… its about what that equipment can do" (Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business ). It seems obscene that Comcast, Verizon and AT&T will continue their attempts to extract a broker fee based solely on their dominant place in the economic network — a network that we as consumers and producers gave value to in the first place.

This is not to say that the Internet poses no threat to Urman’s films. The impact of "freeconomics" on digital content like music and video is replicated in the distribution models that bring us that content. It is therefore ironic that Urman’s savior of independent film is digital distribution, a model that will inevitably restructure our notion of independent film more than those "big and dumb" Hollywood films. One wonders at what point "independent" films are no longer independent. It’s a definitional problem that Urman openly acknowledges.

Will the Internet remain the savior of every niche market? Only time will tell. During the early years of the Internet, Steward Brand famously stated, "Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive… That tension that will not go away."

This statement is contingent on who is speaking on behalf of ‘information,’ a position everyone in these distribution chains eagerly claims. But fundamentally, Brand is right: this tension isn’t going away any time soon.

Jed Brubaker is a graduate student at CCT researching identity and technology. Read more at